El Greco, Lady in fur, 1580s, Glasgow museums and galleries, Scotland
El Greco’s enigmatic lady is wrapped up in a black cape, with a thick fur lining and generous collar – probably a traveling cloak.
A post on fur has been a long time coming. I have been so wrapped up (!) in other projects – including research into the wearing of fur – that I have been silent far too long. Today I want to dedicate this post to the warmth of fur.
For the past 50 odd years the wearing of animal fur has ignited much controversy, but despite that, the industry has continued to exist and even flourish in certain decades. Today we could say that there has been a democratization process around the fur discourse. You like it you wear it, if you don’t you don’t. Simple. Being political in fashion is not so cool right now. The social history of fur is rich and fascinating and I hope to explore some of its aspects in this and other posts.
I have little doubt that humans started wearing fur for warmth. (The fact that you had to be really strong and fearless to kill the animals that would yield the fur, and the implications of that within the social group is also interesting but I will discuss that in a later post about the social significance of the wearing of fur).
I have selected a series of images which, I hope, will reflect the need (and dare I say the pleasure) of wearing fur in really cold climates.
The 16th Century is THE century for fur fashion. Quality fur was a status symbol and it was a hugely lucrative business with well-established trade routes – the luxury furs coming west from Russia. But as fur became increasingly popular, local industries emerged, farming all sorts of animals which brought onto the market a great range of different furs in terms of colour, appearance and of course cost. By the later 1500s most people could afford to line a cloak or a coat with fur. So as well as being a status symbol, fur was also a fashion and lastly it was wonderfully warm.
Italian Renaissance artists took great pleasure in representing fur by 1500, just as the portrait genre began to acquire new psychological depth and attention to realism of detail. Enveloping – male or female – sitters in rich furs was a way of showing their wealth but also the technical capacity of the painter. The fur, along with the clothing, accessories and jewels, added importance and significance to the portrait.
The Venetian and the Lombard artists were particularly good at doing fur:
Moretto da Brescia, gentleman, 1522c, National Gallery, London, UK
Lombard artist, gentleman, 1540c, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Thick linings for over garments in velvet, silk or wool were worn by both men and women during the century – the collar and lapels turned over to ‘show off’ the inside.
Moretto da Brescia, Lady as saint Agnes,1550s, p.c.
These gowns were not necessarily for wearing outdoors, but also to keep warm inside the scarcely heated palaces of the time. We get to see these fur-lined gowns in some of the more ambiguous portraits of the time. Portraits of young brides on their way to the nuptial bed or courtesans?
Giorgione, young lady, 1506c, Kunsthistoriches museum, Vienna, Austria
Tizziano, young lady wrapped in fur gown, 1535, Kunsthistoriches museum, Vienna, Austria
These loose-fitting over gowns were known as ‘night gowns’ in England. Queen Elisabeth has several of them made throughout her reign. The name comes from its original use as a bed chamber ‘dressing gown’, but by the 1550s it had become acceptable wear around the palace for less formal occasions. Queen Elisabeth I was very receptive to foreign fashions and at this point long loose gowns were being worn all over Europe as well as Muslim countries, in her inventories we find Italian, French, German, Spanish and even Polish gowns.
Anon, Frances Sidney Countess of Sussex, 1565-70c, Sidney Sussex college, Cambridge University, UK
Countess Sussex (Queen Elisabeth’s Lady of the bed-chamber) here wears a more formal version of the fur-lined gown. It is made of silk velvet displaying the family’s heraldic motif. This would have been a garment made for a specific formal occasion in deep winter and is therefore lined in warm fur. The fur is ermine which was of course a symbol of royalty/aristocracy.
Northern artists were a little less enamoured with the tactile aspect of fur compared to the italians, but made a good job of representing it.
In the 1600s the Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens brought together the Italian cinquecento tradition and his own Dutch roots in this powerful portrait
P.P.Rubens, the fur, 1630s, Kunsthistorisches museum, Vienna, Austria
Here the pale pinky flesh of Rubens’s lover contrast with the dark velvet and fur of the gown. An intense, even erotic combination which leaves no doubts as to the nature of their relationship.